NEW ORLEANS – Lance Kaepernick was 23 days old when he died.
He seemed normal when his parents brought him home. Then everything, suddenly, went tragically wrong. Two open heart surgeries couldn’t save the tiny baby Rick and Teresa Kaepernick had so joyfully welcomed into their lives.
Their next son never made it out of the hospital. Kent Kaepernick was 4 days old when he died, also of a heart defect.
“You’re 25, 26 and you have two sons buried,” Rick Kaepernick said. “You grow up in a hurry.”
A daughter, Devon, would follow, joining their healthy, first-born son, Kyle. By then, though, the Kaepernicks were done taking chances and doctors warned them against trying for another pregnancy.
“Maybe the kids would have lived today with all the advances that have been made,” Rick said. “But it just wasn’t to be.”
But the yearning didn’t stop, and one day Teresa told her husband she was ready for another baby.
Their new son was 5 weeks old when they first held him at the Lutheran Social Services office in Appleton, Wis. He was healthy, vibrant and full of life.
On Sunday he’ll be behind center, trying to win a Super Bowl for the San Francisco 49ers.
“He’s ready to roll,” Rick Kaepernick said this week from his hotel room in this party town. “He’s pretty focused.”
If the story of Colin Kaepernick’s meteoric rise from obscurity to superstar in the making is a remarkable one, the story of his life bears some telling, too. Born to a teenager in Wisconsin a quarter century ago, the only memories he has of his early life is with the couple who adopted him.
He doesn’t like to talk about it, and has declined chances to meet with his birth mother. For their part, the Kaepernicks particularly dislike it when people refer to their son as adopted.
Of course, they couldn’t have imagined when they began the process that the offspring of a blonde, athletic mother and an black father who was out of the picture before he was born, would be a star quarterback.
“At the end of the day he’s just our son,” Rick said.
The Kaepernicks will be in the stands at the Superdome on Sunday rooting for him. So will about 15 family members, who have cheered him on since he began dominating games – almost from the minute he was old enough to throw a ball.
The Colin Kaepernick the public knows is cool and collected, not the least bit nervous about the stage he will be on or the job he has to do. Despite the intense efforts of the media to tease out more sound bites during Super Bowl week, he remains a man of very few words.
“What you’re seeing is the way he’s always been. He’s not one to talk a lot about himself,” his dad said. “He doesn’t care who gets the headlines or the credit, and I think you see that in your interviews. He’s just not full of himself.”
That was evident Thursday during Colin Kaepernick’s last media appearance before the big game. He dutifully answered questions without elaborating, never veering off task before it finally was over and he could return to practice.
“It’s not that I’m not comfortable with it,” he said. “To me, I’m here to play football. That’s what I want to do.”
That’s the quality former Nevada coach Chris Ault saw when his starting quarterback went down and he turned to the redshirt freshman. Kaepernick threw for five touchdowns. It’s what Jim Harbaugh saw when the backup electrified a national audience with a Monday Night Football rout of the Bears in November. Starter Alex Smith was on the bench the rest of the season.
It’s the same quality his parents have seen almost from the time he first began to talk in complete sentences.
“I’m a parent, but I would say if you sat in the stands and watched him as a kid, you could see he had something,” Rick Kaepernick said. “He has that ‘it’ factor, whatever that ‘it’ is. In basketball, when it came time to take a 3-pointer to tie or win, he wanted the ball. He was never the nervous Nellie, it was like, ‘Give me the ball.’ You could see that at a young age.”
That the Kaepernicks are proud parents goes without saying. Every parent who has taken their child to Little League or Pop Warner entertains dreams of someday watching them play in a World Series or Super Bowl.
They’re just as proud, though, of how he honors his brothers who never made it. Colin quietly donated part of his first game check to Camp Taylor, a California charity his parents are involved in for children with heart defects, and last July he visited the camp with them.
He showed off his many tattoos while swimming with the kids, letting them climb on his back as he paddled about. He sat on the floor with them and listened as they told him about their different heart conditions, joined them in crafts and ate dinner with them.
When it was time to go, the kids hid his car keys, knowing that if you lose something at Camp Taylor you have to sing to get it back.
And so, the quarterback towered over them and was joined by his parents for a chorus of “This Little Light of Mine,” a song he learned in Sunday school.
“He just loves kids, and he ended up spending six or seven hours there,” his father said, “It’s such a great thing for kids and we want that to be successful. We know how hard it is for parents. So we’re pleased he is doing that.”
While their son has been the definition of coolness under pressure in games and in front of cameras and microphones this week, Rick Kaepernick admits to feelings of anxiety and excitement heading into Sunday. He and Teresa have been watching him compete all his life but this, obviously, is on a different level.
And while they savor this moment, they also will be thinking of two little guys who never got to live a full life.
“There’s not a day that goes by we don’t think of the kids,” Rick said. “Everybody grieves differently and you try to get through it. But you never forget.”
• Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press.